I was delighted to read a New Year's pledge by the Muskegon Chronicle editors recently.
We live in an era of declining newspaper readership, at a time when too many newspapers are following the dollar and pursuing what has been called "market driven" journalism. In other words, newspapers cover stories that will attract readers, which will attract advertisers, which will improve profits.
Ironically, this has proven to be a downward spiral. People can get the puffy entertainment, sensational scandal, and other trivial content in many other sources. Local newspapers need to do what they do best--local news.
The Chronicle pledge speaks to this. They primarily assert their democratic duty to help readers make "informed decisions" that will improve the quality of their lives. They do mention providing content that will inform, educate, and entertain readers, but entertainment is ok to a point. The key is this: they stress a vigilant coverage of local news, and an editorial opinion policy that has the community's best interest in mind.
That's not only a sound formula for traditional journalism in the democratic spirit, it is a good business plan. For all the information out there today, people are overwhelmed and many will "satisfice"--try to simplify--their decision making. Newspapers that get this provide a valuable information service. In local communities, they often are a rare commodity in doing this. Sure, local school board meetings and planning commission hearings may seem drudgery to reporters at times. But that's what is most relevant to people most affected. And that's the news that sells newspapers.
All of this has been proven by some media economics studies at Michigan State and elsewhere. Newspapers that invest in the newsroom and in the community actually do better financially. I'm glad the Chronicle gets this, for both economic and civic reasons.
Meanwhile, we PR pros should get it too. The voice of newspapers in local communities will remain strong in public opinion influence. But we should not use the newspapers for "free publicity" (I hate that term) toward our narrow self interests. We should be partners with newspapers, providing information about which reporters and editors might not otherwise be aware orto which they do not have access. We should do so with the community interest in mind as well as our own or clients' profit. In other words, the bottom line harks back to our own code of ethics which is replete with this phrase: "informed decision making in a democratic society." If we keep that in mind, there will indeed be mutual benefit--PR people, those they represent, the media, and the community.